Laughter and the Brain

Can humor help us better understand the most complex and enigmatic organ in the human body?

Photo by Nosha

By Richard Restak
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In my neuropsychiatric practice, I often use cartoons and jokes to measure a patient’s neurologic and psychiatric well-being. I start off with a standard illustration called “The Cookie Theft.” It depicts a boy, precariously balanced on a stool, pilfering cookies from a kitchen cabinet as his sister eggs him on, while their absentminded mother stands drying a plate, oblivious to the water overflowing from the sink onto the floor. Though not really a cartoon—in that nothing terribly funny is taking place—it allows me to begin assessing various things: abstraction ability, empathy, powers of observation and description, as well as sense of humor. I am especially curious to see how patients process the image, whether they perceive only a portion of it or take it in as a whole. Some people notice only the boy, others only the mother. Next, I show a series of cartoons, starting with examples from a newspaper comics page and working up to more sophisticated drawings from The New

and tickling often leads to laughter. too. and face. which bills itself as “Australia’s leading laughter leaders. humor reduces levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and is thought to enhance our immune. I wasn’t sure how to respond. Over the years. Patients don’t have to find the jokes funny (humor is too heterogeneous for that). Norman Cousins. chronicled in his 1979 bestselling book. abdomen. A joke can raise our spirits. Charles Darwin referred to humor as “a tickling of the mind. even the most skeptical researchers agree that humor provides an antidote to some emotions widely recognized to be associated with illness—for example. and cardiovascular systems. Why am I interested in my patients’ ability to appreciate humor? Because humor impairment may point to operational problems at various levels of brain functioning. my friend and I decided to try this ourselves. She sat facing me. Laughter also provides a workout for the muscles of the diaphragm. Finally. even though . she began laughing. so the analogy is apt. When one begins to laugh.” We speak of being “tickled pink” at a funny joke. you either get it or you don’t. Not long ago. I tell a few jokes set out in increasing levels of subtlety and complexity. under the guidance of one of our qualified laughers. as well as half-hour sessions of “laughing. the other soon starts laughing. many laughter associations and workshops around the world— common most notably in India and Sweden—do just that. breathing and gentle exercise. Their goal is to promote good health via the therapeutic properties of laughter. Anatomy of an Illness. we can put psychological distance between ourselves and the stress. endocrine. I then ask for an explanation of what’s going on in each of them.” arranges seminars and workshops for various groups. If we’re able to laugh during a stressful situation. how he attempted to cure himself of a mysterious and rapidly progressive inflammatory illness of the spine by engaging in hours-long laughing sessions while watching Marx Brothers films and reruns of the then-popular Candid Camera. Though I wouldn’t take a position on whether laughter has universally salutary benefits. I’ve learned that you can’t fake an understanding of a cartoon.” A Swedish friend described a laughter-inducing exercise involving two people sitting across from each other. editor of The Saturday Review for more than 30 years. the feelings of rage and fear that can precipitate a heart attack. LaughterWorks. At the physiological level.Yorker. but they should be able to explain why other people might find them funny. and after a few awkward moments (at least on my part) spent staring silently at each other. Though Cousins’s claims could not be scientifically confirmed. or ease our tension. But a few moments later I found myself laughing.

“Humor can be dissected. in any case. White once wrote. with laughing gas. had read my books and has long maintained a lively interest in neuroscience. Laughter can even be induced chemically. But why? In the weeks that followed. and David Sipress to explore the question of why people find cartoons funny. Paul Noth. can be a self-defeating exercise. but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind. We may also laugh nervously when we’re made to feel uncomfortable. Recently. and Kristin Montella—at the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village. The comedians. Trying to parse humor. general information. reserved for professional comedians. The four of us sat at the famous Comedy Table. I was invited to participate in a discussion with three popular comedians—Robert Kelly.nothing funny was said. B. Soon after. neuroscience can provide some useful insights into what happens when we find a joke or cartoon funny. it isn’t just humor that we seek to better understand. but rather. I would not suggest that neuroscience can “explain” humor or provide the reason why we laugh at certain jokes or cartoons and not at others. these cortical areas are related to speech. Noam Dworman. We laugh when we hear others laugh—as I experienced with my Swedish friend (indeed. I must admit that I felt better after our laughter exercise. may not have known that the club’s owner. and . Dan Naturman. as I searched for an explanation. scientists have begun conducting research into the neurological processes underpinning mirth and laughter. The brain has no humor “center. and spent almost two hours engaging in some high-speed repartee concerning the interaction between comedians and their audiences. as a frog can.” Humor is associated with—note that I didn’t say “caused by. naturally curious about the presence of a “brain doctor” in their midst. One can exist without the other: we may find a risqué joke amusing but withhold a smile if we happen to be in polite company. where I joined New Yorker cartoonists Zach Kanin. whether conveyed by joke or cartoon. this phenomenon of contagious laughter is why laugh tracks are used in situation comedies). We discussed how humor. Located near the top of the brain.” Still. has both a subjective component (exhilaration or mirth) and its physical expression (smiling or laughing). Ultimately. I sat on a panel at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan. or via electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain. As E.” à la White’s frog dissection analogy—brain networks involving the temporal and frontal lobes in the cerebral cortex. that most complex and elusive of organs: the human brain.

Instantaneously our brains configure a scenario involving waiters or waitresses. but they weren’t included. —I washed a sock. —I went into a store and asked the clerk if there was anything I could put under my coasters. Consider what happens when a friend suggests meeting at a restaurant.the appreciation of contradiction and illogicality. Basically. Consider. Indeed. everyday activities are given a different spin by forcing the listener to modify standard scripts about them. So I had to buy them again. And because our scripts are so generalized and compressed. It is the brain’s frontal lobes that make sense of the discrepancy between the script and the situation described by the joke or illustrated by the cartoon. He asked why I wanted to do that. followed by a bill and the computation of a tip.” but I didn’t have that much time. Obviously we can’t appreciate a joke told in a language we can’t speak. Within these cortical areas the joke or cartoon is parsed. almost any joke from stand-up comedian Steven Wright. —I bought some batteries. This ability is unique to our species. menus. the process of reacting to and appreciating humor begins with the activation of a script in the brain’s temporal lobes. we tend to make unwarranted assumptions based on them. Though apes can engage in play and tease each other by initiating false alarm calls accompanied by laughter. Only we can do this because—thanks to the larger size of our frontal lobes compared . or a cartoon that relies heavily on cultural norms or information foreign to us. Then I put it in the dryer. Humor takes advantage of this tendency. highly compressed and applicable to almost any kind of restaurant. for example. All humor involves playing with what linguists call scripts (also referred to as frames). deadpan delivery: —I saw a bank that said “24 Hour Banking. In each of these examples. scripts are hypotheses about the world and how it works based on our previous life experiences. they cannot shift back and forth between multiple mental interpretations of a situation. known for his ironic. When I took it out it was gone. This process. I told him I wanted to make sure my coasters weren’t scratching my table. a sequence of eatables set out in order from appetizer to dessert. works largely outside conscious awareness.

along with the alternative explanations that are worked out with the aid of the frontal lobes.with other species—we are the only creatures that possess a highly evolved working memory. which by creating and storing scripts allows us to appreciate sophisticated and subtle forms of humor.” The superiority theory lends itself especially to an explanation of cruel and hostile humor: the situation depicted in the joke or cartoon could never happen to us. . for a brief period after hearing a joke or looking at a cartoon. In a word. but laughter is enjoyable. In Plato’s dialogue Philebus. the admixture of pleasure in our malice produces a mixture of pleasure and distress. we place great value on logic. When we solve the problem. The second most popular theory of humor. Even so. we will playfully accept a situation that is highly unlikely or even impossible (a cartoon depicting an attempted kidnapping by Martians) as long as the scenario depicted in the cartoon is coherent and logically consistent with its theme. To appreciate a cartoon or a joke. we feel superior to the person suffering misfortune. For we agreed some time ago that malice was a form of distress. First. expectations about the meaning of a joke or cartoon are jarringly undermined by the punch line of the joke or the caption of the cartoon. This theory is based on the deep relationship that exists in the human brain between the laughable and the illogical. a tension that counterbalances what we assume about the situation being described or illustrated against what the comedian or cartoonist intends to convey. created and stored over a lifetime in the temporal lobes. hence our amusement. Finally. According to the most common explanation for humor— thetension release theory—we experience. Incongruity resolution usually takes a little longer than tension release and occurs in two stages. As a species. there are three general theories that explain how humor works. This leads to a form of problem solving aimed at reconciling the discrepancy. or stupidity. Socrates says. the superiority theory emphasizes how mirth and laughter so often involve a focus on someone else’s mistakes. the incongruity resolution model. Neuroscientists often compare working memory to mental juggling. The tension is released only when the joke or cartoon is understood. you have to keep in mind at least two possible scenarios: your initial assumptions. misfortune. and on these occasions both occur simultaneously. “When we laugh at the ridiculous aspects of our friends. In the realm of psychology.involves the solving of a paradox or incongruity in a playful context. the pieces fall into place and we experience the joy that accompanies insight. Failure to get the point of a joke or cartoon causes the same discomfort we feel when we cannot solve a problem.

humorous material triggers a precise repertoire of responses: the order. timing. like walking a tightrope. If successful. patients with temporal lobe epilepsy were shown a series of cartoons. Schwartz. irrelevant or distracting elements must be discounted or ignored. timing. The research—which involved fMRI—shows that rappers use different parts of their frontal lobes when improvising their lyrics than when they are performing rhymes that have already been written down. which measures brain activity by noting changes in blood flow. emotional responses that involve a subcortical network (that is. Similarly. and emphasis must be just right. Whenever we’re doing something we love. most humor incorporates aspects of all three of those theories. Though many of the cortical areas responsible for understanding the cartoon were activated in both of its versions. conducted by neurologists Shirley Ferguson and Mark Rayport and neuropsychologist Melvin L. Steven Wright described comedic performance as “very dangerous. it can take a personal toll on his or her mental health. the fMRI displayed a switch in frontal activity from the dorsolateral frontal areas. which can lead to mistakes in delivery. We know this based on a recent study performed at the National Institutes of Health involving rap artists. when a comedian bombs on stage. the successful stand-up comedian has to “let go” and resist the temptation to self-criticize and self-monitor. only the funny cartoons engaged the network of humor-specific subcortical structures that compose the pleasure and reward network. jokes evoke mirth and laughter.In practice. But understanding the humor of a joke or cartoon is only half the process. to the medial frontal area. or like running across a lake of ice . responsible for self-monitoring and self-criticism. Humor makes heavy demands on the brain. We know this based on some highly original research by Dean Mobbs. Mobbs then compared his subjects’ responses to the two versions. The patients didn’t find them at all funny. now at Columbia University.” The frontal lobes also play a huge role in the improvisation associated with the creation of jokes or cartoons. In one study from 1969. When they started to freestyle. After entering via the visual track (cartoons) or the auditory track (jokes). In each instance the humorous element in the funny cartoon was subtracted to produce a cartoon that wasn’t funny. Indeed.” “integration difficulty. Mobbs showed his subjects a series of funny and unfunny cartoons. beneath the cortex) devoted to mediating reward or pleasure. A similar response occurs when we look at a funny cartoon. this subcortical network is activated and “lights up” in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scan. In an interview with fellow comedian David Steinberg on Showtime’s Inside Comedy. The experimenters instead noted an “inappropriate focus on irrelevant detail.” and “egocentricity. associated with spontaneous creative efforts. or presentation.

instead. “Have the heard the one about …?” How often have you recently encountered someone who went out of his or her way to make you laugh? (Spouses and close intimates excepted here.” according to Martin. worse yet. A patient with an impaired frontal lobe is. after which he quit nightclub performances altogether and turned his attention to making records. we have become a serious (i. damage to the frontal lobes creates in some patients a predilection for a peculiar form of gallows humor known as Witzelsucht.e.” Steve Martin told Steinberg of the comedian’s need to steel himself against the pain aroused when no one laughs at a joke or.” and Sucht means “addiction. one tearful—and decide which of the facial expressions was most appropriate. such as this one fromThe New Yorker. It is further distinguished by an inability to appreciate complex or subtly embedded jokes or cartoons. enabling us to see the “whole picture”—can damage the ability to process and appreciate humor. “Stand-up comedy is the ego’s last stand. which plays a special role in the integration of perceptions. given the situation. one would expect that we would be telling and listening to jokes all the time. In addition. Physical injuries to some areas of the brain—namely. (In German. “Because it’s not me in the coffin. After spending time in a psychiatric hospital. “Why did you pick the smiling face?” he was asked. Given how much we seem to value humor in our daily lives. the right hemisphere. Without hesitation he selected the smiling face. He laughed and responded. and slapstick comments that morbidly refer to some aspect of the patient’s illness.” Witzelsucht often also takes the form of bizarre puns.where the ice is breaking behind you and it is going to take an hour to get to the other side.”) A patient of Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Stuss with bilateral frontal lobe injury was asked to look at a drawing of a casket with three faces beneath it — one smiling. who suffered a serious nervous breakdown during a performance in San Francisco in 1959.) Perhaps in response to the stresses of the early 21st century. unable to make the frame shifts necessary for the creation or appreciation of humor. one neutral. comparatively . Injury to the frontal lobe (within the right hemisphere) prevents a person from shifting back and forth between an initial assumption (based on scripts) and the alternative explanation suggested by a joke or cartoon. witzelnmeans “to wisecrack. This proved true for the late Jonathan Winters. when you get booed off the stage. overly literal. one-liners. Winters returned to stand-up only to suffer another nervous collapse two years later. Yet how many jokes have you been told today? How long has it been since somebody came up to you and asked..

And humor has much to do with that most fundamental of human behaviors— falling in love. Indeed. Within the workplace. dinner party jokes have become almost as uncommon as April Fools’ Day pranks. receiving special dispensation to make jokes about serious topics to the king without fear of retaliation. Stephen Colbert’s barbed jokes at the 2006 dinner incensed George W. In a culture that is increasingly polarized politically. Not surprisingly. without running the risk that someone will find some aspect of it offensive. what many others would like to say but can’t. for example. (On occasion.humorless) society. if someone further down the chain did so. Is it any surprise that jokes have largely fallen out of favor in the workplace? Instead. Bush so much. humor typically started at the top. we encounter people who find nothing funny. either privately or publicly. Because of this. At the yearly White House Correspondents Dinner. according to psychologist . of course. some neuroscientists believe that humor may have evolved with another cognitive ability we share with the higher primates: the rapid and intuitive assessment of social situations. the results were less predictable: the workers usually looked toward the boss to decide how to respond. humor helps us identify others with dispositions and propensities similar to our own. but who wants to spend a life with them?) Humor appreciation. it’s hard now to make a joke. everybody was supposed to laugh. I suspect. probably not. If the boss or supervisor said something funny. that the president seemed “ready to blow. in the presence of the president. a comedian is chosen to act as a surrogate who may say in humorous form. we’ve formalized humor and licensed it to professionals such as comedians and cartoonists. the choice is between an office environment in which anybody can make a joke (probably not a wise policy) or one in which jokes are restricted to persons in authority (also not a good thing). according to an aide. however. in the more egalitarian environment of the modern office such a hierarchical arrangement is considered patronizing or condescending.” But do any of these considerations portend an end to humor? Given that the impulse to find and express amusement has existed since the formation of the earliest social groups. According to Gil Greengross and Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico.” Since jokes and cartoons strike different degrees of mirth in different people. who fill the ancient role of medieval court jesters. humor “may be one of the most important traits for humans seeking mates. differs between the sexes. for instance. As a result.

neuroscience will attempt to explain its mechanics. did not predict interest in future interaction on the part of either the woman or the man. which is all to the good.Eric R. as does what society considers funny. involve distinct brain regions? Though much may be known about the brain structures involved in humor. dissecting humor. men tend to like slapstick more than women do. generally speaking—favor a gentler brand of humor: funny stories or self-deprecating jokes. who analyzed the marriages of 60 couples over an 18month period and found that when men used humor to cope with stressful events. Force cites the work of psychologists Catherine Cohan and Thomas Bradbury. Presumably. while men favor women who laugh at their jokes. who notes that. However humor evolves in the future. . Cohan and Bradbury suggest that the nature of the humor that men favor can lead to a deterioration in a couple’s bond during times of turmoil. Our parents and grandparents would have found this sort of joke amusing: Knock knock. it turns out. Humor is constantly evolving—comics’ tastes change. As Nichole Force notes in a 2011 article published in Psych Central. Nor are the expressions of humor the same. after all. Force writes. what exactly is the sequence of their activation? New studies are coming out all the time. but female humor seems more effective in maintaining them. These gender differences have practical implications for long-term relationships. in contrast. Indeed. The enduring mystery is understanding how. how much a woman laughs at a man’s jokes can determine how attractive each partner finds the other. in general. Bressler. “Humor” based on racial and ethnic stereotypes or physical or mental disabilities is no longer acceptable. whether to cartoons or jokes. B. when a woman laughs a man’s jokes. Bressler found that men’s laughter. women tend to favor men who make them laugh. isn’t quite the gruesome affair that E. and their jokes are more aggressive and mean-spirited. are hardwired for laughter. the man becomes more interested. Who’s there? Madame. Madame who? Madame foot’s caught in the door!  We no doubt find it juvenile and embarrassing. Male humor may play a role in establishing romantic relationships. such as job loss or death. And why should it be? Our brains. It’s a subject that raises perplexing questions: Are smiling and laughing based on the same or different circuits within the brain? Do the stages of humor response. White imagined. it led to a greater incidence of divorce and separation than when women used humor in similar situations. Women—again.

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